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Treatments & procedures

The simple new treatment for people with cancer

A recent report recommends people with cancer incorporate exercise into their treatment plan. We find out why.

Charmaine Yabsley
August 2018

During cancer treatment, exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing. But a report by Clinical Oncology Society of Australia recommends that all people with cancer “should avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible following diagnosis (i.e. be as physically active as current abilities and conditions allow.”

Professor Prue Cormie, the lead author of the study, says people who exercise after their cancer diagnosis have a 25-45% lower risk of death and a 20-35% reduced risk that the cancer will reappear.

A treatment breakthrough

“When a person undergoes cancer treatment, both healthy and bad cells are attacked. This causes an aggressive decline in [their] physical function, which can impact their ability to do everyday things,” says Prof Cormie.

Exercise can, in addition to cancer treatments, help “slow the progression of cancer, increase quality of life and potentially improve chances of survival,” she says.

Exercise before, during and after cancer treatment, may also help to minimise the side effects of treatment. Prof Cormie says that people who exercise are better able to tolerate aggressive treatments, counteract cancer-related fatigue, minimise physical decline, relieve stress and improve their quality of life.

“If we could turn the benefits of exercise into a pill it would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and subsidised by government – it would be seen as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment,” she says.

Exercise helping rehabilitation

Adam James, 31, was diagnosed in October 2015 with a large germ cell tumour, which was at first thought to be testicular cancer. “I had 18 chemotherapy treatments over 4 months, which reduced the size of the tumour.”

Adam had also lost around 40kg. He began rehabilitation and exercise but after 18 months of remission, he was told that his cancer had returned, and it was more aggressive. He believes that his time exercising meant that he handled the next round of chemotherapy better.

“After 10 weeks recovery from stem cell transplant and high-dose chemo, I have begun my rehabilitation once more. It’s early in my treatment but even after a few sessions I’ve noticed a big difference in my strength and confidence in everyday movement.”

Exercise to lift mood

Prof Cormie points out that telling somebody who’s experiencing cancer-related fatigue to exercise could appear to be counterintuitive. But this type of tiredness isn’t relieved by rest.

“It may be the last thing you want to be told, but it’s the best thing that you can do for your health. Research has shown that exercise is the best medicine for someone with cancer-related fatigue.”

She says it’s better than medication for increasing energy levels and boosting your mental health.

“Cancer has a big impact on mental health,” she says. “Psychological distress is a common side-effect, along with depression and anxiety. Exercise is a great tool to help you deal with this.”

What kind of exercise can you do?

“Realistically, for people going through chemo, there’ll be days when they don’t want to get out of bed,” she says.

“Getting to a certain fitness level may seem like a reach for many people with cancer, so it’s important to enlist the support of an accredited exercise physiologist for guidance,” she says.

A targeted approach can help you to exercise safely and effectively, and minimise your risk of complications.

Exercise physiologist Jacci Allanson specialises in helping cancer patients with a workout plan. For some people post-chemo, very simple movements can be exhausting but even a short stroll could make a difference.

“I outline a minimum ‘dose’ of exercise they can do every day,” she says. “For instance, if a person could walk for 6 minutes, we start them at 5 minutes, on a flat surface, walking at an easy pace.”

Over the next few weeks they’ll increase the amount of time they spend walking and the speed.

Allanson also ensures that the exercise prescription includes exercises the person enjoys, and are suited to their needs. “Some people become immune-suppressed during or after cancer treatments, so swimming or a gym where they’re exposed to germs, bacteria and other people in a sweaty place isn’t ideal.”

Ask your doctor when you’re able to exercise in these places again.

In the meantime, walking, golf and low impact exercise are good options. And an exercise physiologist may give you resistance training exercises to do at home, such as weights, squats and push ups.

Exercise may also help with the mental side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, such as depression, anxiety and mental fog – where you have problems with memory or attention.

“Getting moving can help reduce the [mental] fog many people suffer after chemo, it clears the head, gets your heart rate up, and most importantly helps you feel alive and vital,” says Allanson.

Learn more about the recommended exercise guidelines.

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